Independence Day: Time to introspect

By Dr Santosh Kumar Mohapatra 

Independence Day is annually celebrated on August 15 in India commemorating the sacrifices made by the freedom fighters, political leaders and citizens in order to liberate the country from imperial shackle and colonial regime. The year 2020 marks the 74th Independence Day which is being celebrated amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in the country. Independence Day  should not be confined to only celebration, but it is a day for introspection, retrospection especially  about  condition of people and whether  our fledgling democracy is  getting strengthened or moving in opposite direction.

The strength of our democracy cannot be measured only by right to suffrage /voting rights, rather in term of freedom of expression, independence of media, encouragement to dissent and criticism and economic situation like elimination of poverty, hunger and inequality and creation of more job opportunities. India has achieved something, but a lot to be achieved.

The President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing Wen, once said, “Democracy is not just an election, it is our daily life.”On the eve of Independence Day, it is an opportune moment to ponder over the state of democracy in India. The latest edition of the Democracy Index declared by “The Economist Intelligence Unit” (EIU) on January 22, 2020 spells gloom for India.

According to “The Economist Intelligence Unit”,— the research and analysis division of The Economist Group, which is the sister company to The Economist newspaper,  India slipped 10 places to 51st position in the 2019 Democracy Index’s global ranking.    What is disconcerting is that India had slipped from the 27th rank in 2014 to 41st in the Democracy Index 2019.

India’s overall score fell from 7.23 in 2018 to 6.90 on the Index that provides a snapshot of the current state of democracy worldwide for 165 independent states and two territories. The index is based on five categories — electoral process and pluralism; the functioning of government; political participation; political culture; and civil liberties.  The primary cause of the democratic regression was an erosion of civil liberties in the country.

Based on their total score, the countries are classified as one of four types of regime: “full democracy; flawed democracy; hybrid regime authoritarian regime. India remains a “flawed democracies”, despite being an electoral wonder. India that holds free and fair elections and where basic civil liberties are respected but have significant weaknesses in aspects of democracy, such as problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation. According to the report, there are only 22 “full democracies” as compared to 54 “authoritarian regimes” and as many “flawed democracies,” that include the U.S.

Media has the power to inform and enlighten people. It should provide correct information to people. It is watchdog of democracy. Survival and supremacy of democracy depends upon the transparency of media and how much freedom it enjoys. The political argument does get stronger, louder, and vociferous because of the increasingly watchful media, of which most political groups have become guarded, even scared. The narrative lies in the belief that the people dethrone, vanquish non-performers, unpopular and bring in those who they think can perform.

But in India, most of media houses are utilized for catering to the business or political interest of its owners.  In the last few years of Modi regime, things have gone from bad to worse.  Media has not only lost independence, but also been emasculated and has little liberty to criticize the ruling dispensations either due to veiled threat or allurement of advertisement. It has lost pro-people character and no longer represents the voice of voiceless.

Even media houses or journalists are divided ideologically ignoring truth and reality .Media are  battered, pounded to show emotional issues repeatedly like war , border conflicts, religious matter to divert the attention of people from real problems like poverty, hunger and inequality. As a result of which, people are deprived of getting correct information. Most of views carried by main stream media are designed to promote the interest of ruling dispensation resulting in to decimation of voice of voiceless. The social media has lost credibility as it is flooded with fake news, manipulated videos etc.

The decline in media’s freedom in India is reflected in annual global press freedom index released by “The Reporters Without Borders”. Titled 2020 World Press Freedom Index released on April 21, has ranked India at 142 among 180 countries down by two slots from previous ranking.. It means India is below 141 countries as far as freedom of  press is concerned. India’s neighbours — Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka — are ranked higher in the list.

In 2015, India was placed at 136. In 2016, it further improved to be at 133. In 2017, it was back at 136. Next two years, 2018 and 2019 it slipped two ranks, to be at 138 and 140 respectively. The report says that the Indian media reeling under a Hindu nationalist government, which has time and again tried to gag journalists.

Democratic right is not confined to only to right to suffrage, it is beyond this such as easy access to electoral battle, power to express dissent and criticize or expose the failures of ruling dispensation or others. In reality, one cannot contest election without money and muscle power.  In India, freedom of speech is guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution of India subject to reasonable restriction. But  many fear to give independent opinion.

India has large and sometimes coherent, expressive, communicative political parties, leaders and it have had leaders totally committed to the concept of democracy, which is also true. There was Jawaharlal Nehru, Jayaprakash Narayan and others who believed in the concept of democracy as the only one that would keep the country together and take it forward. Like true democrats they believed that dissent was a vital part of democracy, and that the country would only be enriched by debate and discussion, even by agitation if that became necessary. Their belief was complemented, substantiated by their direct contact with the people; the trust that people had in them.

But now, press is not only muzzled but freedom of expression seems to be in jeopardy. There is trust deficit.  A culture of greed, hatred, hedonism is instilled which not augur wells for society and our democracy. Criticism, dissents and independent thinking, analytical ability are discouraged or annihilated. Hatred is created against dissenters.  In the name of positivity, sometimes critics are indirectly coerced to praise politicians who even breed and incite violence, communal conflagration, and religious fanaticism or tell blatant lies and hoodwink masses by evoking emotion instead solving problems of hunger, poverty, unemployment, and inequality.

All most all regulatory bodies, key posts have seen appointment of people at the helm of affairs who can justify the decision of government of can give verdict in favour of ruling dispensation. If anybody differs are shown the door to exit. This has led to death of justice delivery system in many cases.  By this most of decisions are either to evoke the emotion of people for electoral dividend or to buttress the interest of rich/corporate honchos.

Corporate tax cut is a glaring example. What is reprehensible is that, when people are struggling to cope with devastating, cataclysmic impact of covid-19, economy is crumbling, tumbling. The wealth of Amabani is increasing exponentially. Reliance Industries Ltd.’s chairman is now worth $80.6 billion, after amassing $22 billion this year, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

In India including some other countries, democracy has been taken over by oligarchy, while neoliberalism has spawned crony capitalism. Philosopher Plato discusses five types of regimes in his book Republic. They are Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny.  Plato defines oligarchy as a system of government which distinguishes between the rich and the poor, making out of the former its administrators.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an oligarchy is a “government by the few,” being “a small group [that] exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes. An oligarchy is a power structure that allows a few businesses, families, or individuals to rule a country. Power concentrated within an elite group of corporations, families, or individuals forms an oligarchy.

Oligarchies can wield control over all forms of government, even democracies which is more applicable in Indian context.  Their power flows through their relationships with each other. An oligarchy can coexist with democracy, theocracy, or kingdom. Their wealth and connections allow them to influence public policy behind the scenes. Our democracy is becoming more centralised with each passing day and people at the top will continue to benefit from this concentration of power

The German sociologist Robert Michels developed a concept that is common knowledge now the iron law of oligarchy. He says, in effect, that democratic institutions, both political and economic, inevitably transform themselves into oligarchic entities as the ruling elite strives to keep power and control. The people can never rule; it simply does not happen.    It seems almost natural to us; a large number of us take instinctively to meekness, servitude and obsequiousness.

It will not do to point to the existence of the opposition. Michels argues, very convincingly, that the opposition and the ruling group are actually one when it comes to the formation of the elite structure that will rule. The concern that this rule be perpetuated is a shared one; all that changes is which part of the elite group gets to rule.  The democratic process today is more about securing the interests, political and economic, of the power elite than about representing the people’s will.

Democracy is damaged, pulverized, undermined and its institutions are rendered ineffective when criminals control them .Democracy loses its pro-people, humane character when rich control it. Normally everybody knows that money and muscle power play dominant role  in Lok Sabha election, so people with criminal  back ground or rich have more chance to get  elected.

But in reality, Rajya Sabha where good, intellectuals, creative people are supposed to be nominated is fraught with people with criminal back ground or rich people too. Even Rajya Sabha MPs are richer than Loka Sabha MPs, which proves that rich people are able to influence their nomination and election to Rajya Sabha. This vitiates the very spirit of our democracy.

The Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) and National Election Watch analyse such records based on the self-sworn affidavits by candidates. Out of the 539 winners analysed in Lok Sabha 2019, nearly 43 per cent or 233 MPs have declared criminal cases against themselves. By contrast , the report titled, ‘Analysis of Criminal Background, Financial, Education, Gender and other details of Sitting Rajya Sabha MPs 2020’ states that 24 per cent or 54 of 229 sitting Rajya Sabha MPs have criminal cases against them.

Out of the 54 Rajya Sabha  MPs who have declared criminal cases against themselves, 28 (12 per cent) have declared that they have been booked in serious criminal cases like murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping and rape. The MPs have also been booked under charges of criminal conspiracy, punishment for rioting, armed with deadly weapons, fabricating false evidence, criminal intimidation, mischief by fire or explosive substance, attempt to commit culpable homicide and charges related to intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace among others.

Similarly, a financial background analysis of MPs reveals that the Lok Sabha elections 2019 witnessed the victory of 88 per cent or 475 crorepatis (of total 542 elected MPs) as Lok Sabha MPs. The number of crorepati MPs elected in 2009 Lok Sabha elections was 315 (58 percent) and 443 (82 percent) in 2014. In case of Rajy Sabha 89 per cent or 203 out of 229 MPs are crorepatis. However, the average of assets per winner in the Lok Sabha elections is Rs 20.93 crore as against the average assets MPs of Rajay Sabha   is Rs. 62.67 crores.

Out of the 301 new BJP MPs, whose affidavits were examined, 265 (88 percent) were found crorepati. In Congress, 43 out of its 51 MPs (totalling 96 percent) were found to be ‘crorepatis’. In case of Rajya Sabha, the report also stated that 91 percent of the 64 MPs belonging to BJP and 92 per cent of the 50 Congress MPs are crorepatis.

These shows, rich people are able to make their entry in to Rajya Sabha than creative, intellectuals or people having achievements in different fields. The chances of winning for a candidate with declared criminal cases in the Lok Sabha 2019 are 15.5 per cent whereas for a candidate with a clean background, it is 4.7 per cent.

Similarly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new Cabinet, which comprises of 58 ministers, has a total of 51 crorepatis. While the average assets of all the ministers’ account for Rs 14.12 crore, four ministers have declared more than Rs 40 crore worth of assets.  Out of 58 ministers, total 22 ministers have declared criminal cases against them with 16 having serious criminal cases.

Due to unfettered liberalization, unbridled privatization, FDI liberalization, retreat of state, , our self-reliance is not only decimated, but also economic sovereignty is imperiled . As rich people, corporate behemoth  are dominating our decision making process, rules are formed to suit tem resulting in to  intensification of inequality, impoverishment of masses, rise in unemployment, privatization of public goods and services like health, education. According to Oxfam report, richest 10 percent of Indians have three-fourths of nation’s wealth .The top 1 percent holds over four times the wealth held by 953 million, who make up the poorest 70 per cent of India’s population.

But by contrast after 73 years of independence, poverty, hunger and starvation, lack of health, education facilities plague many people.  Democracy cannot  flourish by keeping a larger section of people deprived from the benefits of economic growth. Democracy cannot survive if criticism and dissent are suppressed. Time is to introspect and take remedial measures.

 

*The author is an Odisha-based eminent columnist/economist and social thinker. He can be reached through e-mail at [email protected]

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in
any way represent the views of  Sambad English.

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